Does the mayor of Brookhaven have unilateral power to fire his appointees, or is City Council approval required?
That’s a question the council is now debating as part of its charter review process after the city attorney raised the issue during a recent work session.
The mayor and council are reviewing recommendations made in December by the Charter Review Commission as part of a mandated five-year review.
Some recommendations included term limits for council members and small pay raises for the mayor and council. While the commission did not specifically address mayoral firing powers, City Attorney Chris Balch brought up the issue at a Feb. 27 work session.
The city’s charter currently states that a mayoral appointment, such as the city manager, must be approved by a majority council vote. To fire the city manager, or other mayor-appointed official, also requires approval by a majority of the council, according to the charter.
Balch told council members that his advice is to remove the section in the charter stating council approval is needed to fire a mayoral appointee. He cited the 2015 Georgia Supreme Court ruling in favor of former Snellville mayor Kelly Katz. As mayor, Katz sued the city saying she had the right to fire the city attorney despite the council’s opposition.
“The Snellville mayor went to war with the City Council and won a [state] Supreme Court decision in 2015,” Balch said. “Fundamentally … that ruling includes the power to remove that appointment.”
And while the Snellville case dealt with the city attorney, Balch said the ruling implies the mayor can unilaterally remove any of his or her other appointments as well.
Should the council choose to keep in the city’s charter that the council must approve the termination of a mayoral appointee, Balch said he was not sure it would be enforceable by law. Other appointments made by the mayor include the city clerk and city attorney, which are then approved by the council.
The city charter also states that a mayoral appointment must first be suspended by the mayor and council in a public meeting before being terminated in a majority vote in a second public meeting. Balch recommended the council do away with the suspension step.
The city saw this process play out at the beginning of Mayor John Ernst’s term in January 2016. Shortly after taking office, he and the council suspended and then reached a settlement agreement with former city manager Marie Garrett to resign.
Councilmember Bates Mattison questioned giving the mayor unilateral power to fire someone like the city manager without council approval.
“I think it’s an important safeguard to have,” he said. “I don’t think we should have one elected official be able to fire the city manager. The council should have to approve.”
Councilmember Joe Gebbia agreed.
“My belief is we need better checks and balances. If we have the right to approve, we should also have the right to disapprove,” he said.
“I think this issue has been thoroughly litigated,” Councilmember Linley Jones said. “I think whether we like it or not … we are legally bound to include this in our charter.” Leaving in the charter a sentence requiring City Council approval to fire a mayoral appointee could open the city to lawsuits, she said.
Balch explained that by mandating city council approval of the termination of a mayoral appointee limits the authority of the mayor. The council’s attempts to limit the mayor’s authority is at the heart of the 2015 Georgia Supreme Court ruling that went in favor of then Snellville mayor Kelly Katz, Balch said.
“There is language there [in the ruling] that massages the questions of that unilateral power,” he said.
The charter states a vote of three council members out of five is needed to remove a mayoral appointment.
“I don’t think the mayor should be able to fire someone without checks and balance,” Gebbia said. “I’ve seen this happen in the region … You can get a rogue mayor in cahoots with the city manager in a worst-case scenario.”
Councilmember John Park said the mayor is more than an at-large council member and is elected to have more power than a council member.
“I’m somewhat of a traditionalist … certain positions serve at the pleasure of mayor and that is why you elect a mayor,” Park said.
That is the distinction the state Supreme Court ruled [in Katz versus Snellville] — that a mayor is different than a council member, Balch said.
“I cannot tell you what the Supreme Court is going to do … but if this gets litigated … I think the Supreme Court will tell you that you are wrong,” he said.
Mattison argued that by eliminating the council from approving a termination of a mayoral appointment from the city charter, a mayor could “come in and clean house.”
“When talking about the charter, we are talking about our utmost policy guiding document,” he said. “What is the best policy? Policies are driven by the council. We have always been a weak mayor form of government in our city. I’d be fine being litigated again.”
Balch said he would present to the council at a future date more information on the issue.